I’ve never known a Catholic Church that wasn’t part of the sexual abuse crisis. When it first began, I was a child, a non-Catholic student in a Catholic school, and the news held little meaning for me beyond its significance as another tragic headline. When I became Catholic in college years later, the crisis seemed like something that was in the past. Something the Church was still recovering from, sure, but something we were on the other side of.
It’s true that in the years since, the US Church has instituted many measures to protect our children. As a Catholic school teacher, I spent hours upon hours in training, teaching kids “safe environment” lessons. I’ve been fingerprinted and background checked. Things are better now, I thought. Then, this new wave of scandal hit.
Every headline is like a punch in the stomach. Many close friends have confessed they are beginning to feel numb. Numb, jaded, suspicious. How could we not? These are not casual observers or people who were hostile towards religion to begin with. These are friends devoted to the Church, whose faith and prayer lives I admire. How are we supposed to react to this? How do we raise our children to love the Church and admire our priests when this the reality we live in?
We know that the world is full of sinners, that the Church is full of sinners. We begin mass confessing that we are sinners. The Church is a hospital for the sick. But, this sick? That many priests? And why does it seem so much more egregious that a priest should commit such actions?
Our outrage is greater because we have an intuition that priests are supposed to be better. They are supposed to be holy. They are supposed to instruct us and guide us in our Christian life. We put our trust in them and they are supposed to show us what God is like. As someone who has known a few bad priests, plenty of mediocre priests, and a few amazing priests, I’m here to implore you: don’t give up on priests.
From my experience as a religion teacher, who has a Master’s Degree in Theology, I can tell you that studying and reading a lot about Jesus does not make us better followers of Jesus. There is a giant chasm between knowing a lot about someone and walking with them in relationship day by day. Those called to the priesthood are not holier that any of the rest of us. To expect that from a priest is to confuse the role of priests with that of saints. Saints are our exemplary models of holiness. Saints are there to show us how this Christian life ought to be lived – to inspire us to believe that it can be lived.
A Sacrament of Vocation
The call to the priesthood does not in itself sanctify the called. Marriage and the priesthood are sacraments of vocation. In each, we have a call to something supernatural, something that cannot be lived except by the grace of God. In marriage, this call is to be the image of God’s radical, covenantal love to one’s spouse. My husband is one of the greatest men I know, but he cannot be God’s perfect love for me: he’s not a substitute for God. Likewise, priests are called in a special way to be the image of Christ for us. They bring us the sacraments. But they are not Christ, and real damage is done, to both us and them, when we make idols out of them.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is ordination to the priesthood, not to sainthood. Like each of us, priests are called to holiness. They are our fellow workers in Christ’s vineyard. They are the pilgrims alongside us in the slow, steady march to our true home. We are in this together. Abuse, scandal, cover up – all of this is a horrible mess. None of it approximates Christ’s vision for his Church.
It may one day be that, in light of these atrocities, some question the order of the priesthood itself. The priesthood is not what we need, they might argue, but something else. Satan would love nothing more than to take our priests away from us. Take away our priests, and the Eucharist is no more. But let’s not forget who created the priesthood. Let’s remember his promise: the gates of Hell will not prevail against our Church.
A Heroic Mission
When studying the value of a thing, we ought not to look at examples that fail to measure up in some way. We must see it in all of its fullness and glory. Counterfeit professionals don’t study the many ways to counterfeit. They study the real thing. The Sacrament of Marriage isn’t any less beautiful because some people fail to live up to its call. The life of the priesthood is a heroic life.
It is harder than ever to answer the call to the priesthood. It used to come with an elevated place in society. Now, the values and self-sacrifice of the priesthood are denigrated. The evangelical counsels of ordered priests – poverty, chastity, and obedience – fly in the face of a culture that tells us always “more is better.” More money, more sex, more power. For all the priests struggling to live this life and to live it well, who are faithful to Christ’s call, and who return to him when they fall, my prayers are with you.
To all of us struggling to grapple with this crisis in our Church, again, I implore you: don’t give up on our priests. They are good men. Not perfect, but good. On his last night, Jesus prayed that we might all be one. Let’s honor that prayer. Let’s turn towards one another in this crisis, and support our priests in their mission to be good.
St. Therese of Lisieux had a heart for priests and promised to spend her heaven doing good on earth. Let’s join her in her daily prayer for priests:
O Jesus, I pray for your faithful and fervent priests;
for your unfaithful and tepid priests;
for your priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields.
for your tempted priests;
for your lonely and desolate priests;
For your young priests;
for your dying priests;
for the souls of your priests in Purgatory.
But above all, I recommend to you the priests dearest to me:
the priest who baptized me;
the priests who absolved me from my sins;
the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Your Body and Blood in Holy Communion;
the priests who taught and instructed me;
all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way (especially …).
O Jesus, keep them all close to your heart,
and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen.